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Guti: The Man, The Myth, The Legend?

Written by Alan Feehely

“Talent hits a target no-one else can hit. Genius hits a target no-one else can see.”

- Arthur Schopenhauer

Guti inspires awe that’s rare to find in modern football. The game has been sanitised to the degree that we no longer have space for men of his ilk, pirates loaded with as much irresponsibility as talent. Guti was a three-dimensional character from whom you can’t detach or separate anything. His life off the pitch, amidst the bright lights of the Madrid nightlife, was as integral to his being as his life beneath the expectant glare of the Santiago Bernabéu.

Take a clash with Sevilla. Real Madrid are winning 2-1 when the ball comes to Guti at the edge of the box. He takes a touch before arrowing a penetrating left-footed backheel to find Zinedine Zidane in the area, who turns with visible surprise before putting the ball past the opposing goalkeeper. Guti is mobbed by his teammates, so impressed are they by the audacity of his move. The man himself, a blue-eyed, blond-haired angel of the outfield, keeps it cool, calm and collected.

Take a moment on the red carpet. Mobbed by reporters, an oasis of tranquility descends when Guti finds himself chatting with a young female reporter, Cristina Pedroche. They get along well, flirting openly, and the midfielder is clearly in his element, attentive and focused. He’s dressed to the nines in typically questionable gear, but he rescues it with natural presence and evident charisma.

Take a rainy night in Galicia. Madrid are away at Deportivo La Coruña when Kaká feeds Guti, who’s moving toward goal with his weight leaning to his right. He opens his body to shoot, taking the goalkeeper with him, before pulling the ball back with another left-footed backheel to tee up Karim Benzema to score. Like against Sevilla, the goal will be credited to a bald Frenchman, but everyone knew it belonged to Guti.

These moments encapsulate Guti. Moments of sublime genius that reduced the most hardened Galácticos to giggling children, a tall and elegant enganche hitting targets nobody else could see. Guti was a Ferrari in a sport made for BMWs, built for speed rather than endurance. His was a game played with the genius of Pablo Picasso and the vulnerability of Achilles, laced with arrogance, ambition and skill but lacking in consistency. Guti was never going to be capable of putting up serious numbers. He was a libertine whose beauty lay in his unpredictability.

“Guti was a cult player, someone we didn’t know how to interpret,” Jorge Valdano, the man who gave Guti his senior debut in 1995, once wrote. “We saw him as conflicted, but, in reality, he was a free man, playing at a time when football began to require submissive players to commit to a collective structure. I feel it impossible not to feel nostalgic for a player who invented something new every time he received the ball. If there are no Gutis in modern football, that will count as a backwards step.” This is a digestible view of Guti, that of a bold genius creating his art in defiance of an inexorable modernity. A complexity, however, is hinted at by former teammate Sergio Ramos, speaking after that remarkable evening in Galicia. “He’s unique,” Ramos said. “You have to have cold blood to do that.”

Guti was born José María Gutiérrez Hernández in Torrejón de Ardoz, just outside of Madrid. Despite growing up as a Barcelona fan he joined Madrid’s youth system aged 10, working his way steadily up the ladder until he made his first-team debut under Valdano in 1995. “Unlike Raúl, who joined Madrid’s cantera aged 16, Guti played for every level within Madrid’s youth structure and was highly rated by each coach that trained him at the club,” said Matt Wiltse of Managing Madrid. “Then, in 1995 at the tender age of 19, he was handed his debut by Valdano after impressing with the under-19s and the Castilla squad.”

It took time for Guti to settle within the first-team setup at the Bernabéu. “A clearly defined role wasn’t earned until three years after his debut, in the 1998/99 season,” Wiltse said. “That season saw the young blonde playmaker hit almost 2000 minutes across all competitions, although he was still very much a rotational player working his way up to a larger role. Under John Toshack, in 1999, he began to really leave a mark. His versatility gave him more options to enter the starting line-up, although he played primarily on the left of a midfield diamond. In 2000/01, under Vicente del Bosque, Guti became a striker to replace the injured Fernando Morientes. That was the season Guti established himself as a first-team player for Madrid and became a recognised name in European football.

“There is some disagreement as to when Guti’s peak occurred,” Wiltse explained. “Some argue it was the 2000/01 season under Vicente del Bosque while others point to 2002/03 when Madrid won LaLiga and Guti hit double figures in both goals and assists. For me, Guti’s best football came in the latter part of his career, after he had turned 30. The second half of 2006/07 under Fabio Capello and the entirety of 2007/08 under Bernd Schuster saw the best of Guti.

“With Schuster at the helm, Guti finally found the protagonist role he had been in search of his whole career and he ended up producing an incredible 18 assists that season. During that period, many of the passes he produced were jaw-dropping, the delicate touches were awe-inspiring and the vision he showed was simply unparalleled. Guti was a unique player in all of world football. He saw things on the pitch that nobody else saw, not even those high up in the stand or watching on television. His vertical balls broke not one, not two but often three lines. At his absolute best he was the ultimate locksmith, capable of breaking down even the most well-organized defence.”

Guti’s talent and status as a Madrid star didn’t translate to his international career, however, with the playmaker earning just 13 caps for his country. When, as Wiltse alluded to, he was playing magnificent football toward the tail end of the 2000s, Spain were hitting their own peak. La Roja won Euro 2008 and Euro 2012, not to mention the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. For Wiltse, it was Guti’s habit of defying positional categorisation as well as his questionable commitment and work ethic that hamstrung the development of his international career, despite the fact that he was part of Spain teams that won the under-18 and under-21 European Championships in 1995 and 1998.

“It was often noted that if you merged Guti’s talent with Raúl’s mentality you’d create the perfect player,” he said. “Raúl earned 102 caps for Spain while Guti earned 13. For most of Guti’s career Spain played 4-4-2 with two central midfielders, and managers opted for more well-rounded players like Xavi, David Albelda, Rubén Baraja, Gaizka Mendieta, Pep Guardiola and Juan Carlos Valerón, all of whom were playing at a high level around that time. The other reason Guti was left out was down to his off-field controversies. Guti was known to enjoy a late night out in the clubs of Madrid and often had disputes with his managers about his commitment and work ethic. He was often labelled inconsistent, with nobody sure which Guti would arrive come matchday. All of these factors led to a disappointing international career.

“Guti has intrigued so many for so long because of how passionately he divides opinion. Supporters of his feel him to be one of the most breathtakingly talented players to grace the game, while those at the other end of the spectrum see him as one of the most overrated players in football history, with poor outings far more common than fleeting moments of brilliance. To this day supporters of Real Madrid still argue both sides of the Guti debate. No player has ever ignited such a difference of opinion.”

“The problem with Guti is that we all believed his ceiling was so high,” said São Paulo-based Spanish journalist Eduardo Álvarez. “Not only was he amazingly creative but he was also strong. He could tackle. He was six foot one. He could dominate a midfield because he had just decided to work harder than anybody else that night and nobody could stop him. He was outstanding defensively at the beginning of his career. He modelled himself on Fernando Redondo. He had the haircut, both were lefties who liked to go forward and had a fantastic view of the whole pitch. But he was even more offensive than Redondo and in the final third he could assist or score, so we had huge hopes for him. Our hope was that someday a coach would come along and instil some sense in his head and help him to focus 100% on football, but Guti was never going to do that.

“He wanted to stand out in whatever situation he was in. He was from humble origins and suddenly became a millionaire who was accepted into every nightclub in Madrid, and it’s hard to say no to that when you’re in your early 20s. His first famous girlfriend, Bibiana Fernández [also known as Bibi Andersen] was actually a transsexual who was 22 years older than him, a huge star in Spain who had been famous since the 1980s. She had starred in Pedro Almodóvar movies and presented a number of TV programmes, and suddenly Guti was dating her. It was bizarre because he was 20 and she was 42. Obviously, he would have to listen to a lot of abuse from fans of other clubs about this, Atlético Madrid fans especially. Later he married another TV presenter, Arancha de Benito, who was also very well known, so his profile was extremely high off the pitch.

“The problem was that he became a Swiss Army knife. He played as a forward when Morientes got injured and he scored 14 goals, and when Zidane retired in 2006 he played his position, behind the striker, and really enjoyed himself. In other instances, he played as a defensive midfielder, which he could do as well. So, you had this incredibly talented player who could plug all sorts of holes but never complained about being on the bench. He was surprisingly accommodating with that type of situation, and that perhaps impacted his role with the national team because he never had a defined position. In that regard, he was also unlucky because it was the time of Xavi and [Andrés] Iniesta, a time where Spain was loaded with talented midfielders.

“I think his best position was an offensive central midfielder. There were times when he was playing there where he’d touch the ball 20 times in the first five minutes, and you’d just think ‘he’s on it today’. When he played that role and he was focused, he was incredible. He’d work hard defensively, stealing balls and tackling players. But then, when he made mistakes there, they were often much more blatant. I remember a game in 2008 against Juventus at the Bernabéu where he gave away the ball and just didn’t track back and Juventus went on to score. Half the stadium was booing him. Those were the kind of moments that really divided Madrid fans. Those supporting him would say that his talent gave Madrid an edge over the competition, while those on the other side of the argument would say that he could leave you hanging when you least expect it.

“When he was in shape, he was the kind of player you gladly paid the entry fee for just to see, he was that good. He wanted to stand out and be the centre of attention. He wanted to terrorize the opposition defence and make them feel that he was too good for them. He was the kind of player who would irritate opponents to the point where they would kick the hell out of him because he’d done something they deemed disrespectful, like Neymar.”

Guti signed for Beşiktaş in the summer of 2010, leaving Madrid after 25 years at the club. He managed to live through a decade that saw more talent brought to the club than had ever been done at any other club in the entirety of footballing history, and he outlasted them all. Guti won five LaLiga titles with Madrid, four Spanish Super Cups, three Champions Leagues, two Intercontinental Cups and one European Super Cup. On an individual level, he was top-scorer in the 2001/02 Copa del Rey campaign and top assister in LaLiga for 2007/08. His legacy at the club is perhaps best surmised by Álvarez. “Guti was a great player for Real Madrid, but he could have been a legend,” he said. “He could have been one of the top five players ever.”

Schuster, his coach at Madrid, was instrumental in bringing Guti to Turkey. His arrival in Istanbul generated quite a significant deal of fuss. “There was excitement because everyone was aware of his quality and the fact that he had managed to maintain his place at Madrid despite the numerous big-name signings the Spanish club made over the years,” said Turkish football expert Bora Isyar. “That he was a star was beyond doubt. Beşiktaş fans immediately saw him as the signing of the season and the best player in the squad due to his pedigree. I was cautiously optimistic. I thought he could make a difference but, at 33, I didn’t think he’d be able to run the midfield like he did before.”

In keeping with the double life Guti led throughout his career, his performances displayed moments of brilliance but were ultimately marred by extracurricular activities. “His displays early in the season were very good, but then there was a drop in form,” Isyar said. “It might have been his age, or perhaps the glamorous Istanbul nightlife. He was a massive celebrity, more famous than any other footballer in Istanbul. He was a guest on all the talk shows and there were constant rumours about his private life, practically a story a day. Once you didn’t expect him to turn Beşiktaş into world-beaters, you were happy. He’d produce a fantastic 10 minutes here, an amazing 15 there. When he was on it, he was an absolute pleasure to watch.”

Things went south, however, when the man who brought him to Turkey and arguably got the best out of him in Madrid, Schuster, lost his job. It was only a matter of time before Guti’s eastern swansong was to come to an end. “Near the end of his first season, Schuster got sacked. The team, despite the big names, wasn’t doing well on the pitch. His replacement for the next season was Carlos Carvalhal, who preferred a younger, more dynamic line-up. Injuries and a lack of form took Guti out of the starting XI, and as Carvalhal was a disciplined coach who wanted his squad to work hard on the pitch, it was soon clear Guti wasn’t in his plans. In November of 2011, Guti went to Spain for three days but didn’t return in time and failed to report for training so his contract was terminated.”

Guti won the Turkish Cup with Beşiktaş, which was fitting given that the one competition he didn’t win with Madrid was the Copa del Rey. There was never any doubt, however, that his spell in Turkey was only ever going to be a postscript in his career as a footballer, and after his contract was terminated, he retired from the game. Guti, for better or worse, will always be associated with the white of Real Madrid, all the more so given that he never had much of an international career to speak of. In a way, it’s funny that a player like Guti is so intimately tied to Madrid, a club whose identity is so firmly tied up in success and elite performance, a club where winning is everything. Guti’s life, as a footballer at least, was lived between the margins. Guti rejected black and white in favour of grey. Guti’s is a career better measured by the number of breaths he took away than any other statistic. He never became the indomitable machine he perhaps could have, but he hit targets no-one else could even see.

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